ROBERT MORGAN FISHER - "HOBO JERRY"

Hobo Jerry

You tell 'em you don't want to be buried, period. They don't listen.

You tell 'em cremation ain't an option either. They don't get it. You explain what you are, that you're a hobo. You got gypsy bones that can't rest. Even though you're pushin' 80, and spent God knows how many years in this "home," you don't have a home. Never did. They think hobo is a figger of speech, an exaggeration. You're pissed off.

"You must mean homeless," they say. "Right, Jerry?"

Bah. They think about a cartoon bum shouldering a bindle. You were Hobo Jerry! You knew Texas Slim, good old Lonesome Lou, Andy Lang from the Lakeshore Gang. They think disappearing railroads tamed the vagrancy out of you. Not true. You never took a family or a mortgage. You worked enough to eat, keep a dry bed. You picked fruit, swept floors, temporary hire-on in canneries and factories, You did that for 50 years before you ran out of options and became the state's problem.

The news wasn't good. Terminal. So what? Big deal. No kin to notify, nobody to grieve. But there's time to make a plan. They're calling it "arrangements." You got a better word: escape. Oetzi would understand. Oetzi did it right. He's the oldest known hobo. You saw it on TV, read about it in Newsweek. 5,000 years ago, Oetzi laid down to his eternal rest in the Italian Alps. Preserved over the ages thanks to cold and snow, Oetzi's mummified remains were recently discovered. They say he might've had an arrow wound or taken a cudgel to the head. You don't believe that for a second. Oetzi was a hobo who knew when it was time to hop that final freight, back when locomotives were a fuzzy dot on the horizon of human achievement. Oetzi ended his journey with one last look at the night sky. We're of the stars, not of the ground. The undertaker wants to take you under. No way.

You're gonna go like Oetzi: free and clear, face up to the sun-star.

Take the shoes if you want.

You've been in the wheelchair so long they think you can't walk. But you've just been saving up your strength for the final push. You're up before dawn, fully-dressed. You step out into the cold air and boy does it feel good. Free man again. Movin' slow, but movin'. You take the 284 bus east out of Glendora on what used to be Route 66. In East Highlands you take Orange down to Redlands. You limp along Lugonia, which you know turns into Mentone, which turns into Mill Creek, which turns into Route 38. That's the ticket. That'll take you up to the mountains. You need altitude, like Oetzi. You brought some sandwiches in your coat pocket, stolen from the rest home kitchen. You ate one on the bus, just to keep you going. A few miles down Lugonia on foot, you're whipped. The cancer's deep in your bones and you can't go long without a rest. So you wander into a furniture warehouse store and sneak into the back. There's a sea of couches, a hundred times more comfortable than your old bed. You fall asleep and don't wake up till the store's closed and you're locked inside. You find a restroom, take care of business, then go back to the couch and sleep the sleep of the dead.

Maybe it's being trapped in the store, but you dream that nightmare about the early days, when you worked in a circus sideshow. Circus was good work for a hobo. We're gonna bury Hobo Jerry! the barker would hawk. They'd put you in the ground for a week with some food, water and a little air tube. Then they'd dig you up on the weekend with lots of fanfare. Or they'd secretly bury you under cover of night, put a gravestone there that said HERE LIES HOBO JERRY and "resurrect" you a day later. That was your favorite - not only for the shorter time in the earth, but for the effect it had on the crowd. They were church-goin' people and there was something ... downright inspired about those "resurrections."

And it was all good fun. Till the day they forgot to dig you up and split town.

In the dream it's always the same: you lose track of time; you run out of food and water; honeybucket fills up. You got a beard so you can't measure days by new stubble. But you know someone messed up good. You claw the lid. You scream. You wake up.

In reality, you thought you heard gophers scratchin' the sides of the coffin, tryin' to get in. But it was the circus come back for you. First thing you saw when your eyes adjusted to the light were Siamese twins, Monkey Boy, Bearded Lady, Minnie the Midget and Rubber Man staring down. They put you in the back of a flatbed truck and hauled ass down the road, tryin' to make up for lost time. Colonel Puterbaugh was drunk, didn't even apologize. Ten days left for dead and not even a "sorry." By the time they reached the next town, you'd collected your pay, got your bearings, filled your belly and told 'em you were quittin' for good.

"I'm goin' back to bein' a hobo," you said. "Git yerselves another rube."

And this is why you'd rather have your eyes pecked out by buzzards than go back into that ground.

Furniture store workers give you a funny look when they see you shuffle out. You find someone's left-behind fancy coffee on a gas pump and gulp it. It was cold in that store. The steamin' liquid thaws your guts, but it also pokes the disease. Down the road, a lone black woman pushin' a shopping cart miles from any grocery store. You get closer and see it's actually a white woman so unclean as to appear tarred. Cart piled high with bottles and cans in plastic garbage bags and she's spewin' cusswords to an imaginary enemy walking alongside. She's prematurely decomposed by meth, booze and blunt-force trauma. Seeing a mutant modern member of the tribe like this, your first instinct is to search walls and trees for hobo travelers' code - maybe a wavy line with an X, signifies fresh water and a campsite. Or the circle with two parallel arrows meaning Get out fast.

You've been reported missin' from the home, they're lookin' for you. People have seen, taken note, called it in. They're not far behind, you can feel it. As you hike to the final meadow, you hear helos and planes in the distance. Good thing night is almost here. On top of that, it's startin' to snow! It's just like Oetzi, you think. You lay down in a cushion of columbine, steppe and poppies just below the snowline. Death's embrace could not be softer.

The cold seems to leave in the night. You know it's just the ability to feel that's gone. Things are shuttin' down. You're almost gone by first light. Afternoon sun melts a premature death shroud dusting of fresh snow. At dusk, a helo hovers, hesitant, as if it isn't sure it can actually see the fading life form below. Its whap-whap loosens old snow pack and a minor avalanche conspires to conveniently cover you like a clean white sheet.

Naturally, the old panic comes on. You press against the snow, hollow out a space. It's dark, but there's some light from above. You paw upwards, break through, create a small hole. This is what you see: Big Rock Candy Mountain clouds in a beautiful blustery blue sky, pierced by your final sunset. You lie back, wait for the stars to invite you home. Later, you hear dogs. Pray they don't disturb you until spring.

END

"Hobo Jerry" - Companion Song:



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